Obasanjo, Atiku and Imperial Presidentialism


Obasanjo and Atiku

It started with that THISDAY interview. Nigeria’s hitherto taciturn Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, has ruffled some feathers with his comments that have been construed to represent an affront on his boss, President Olusegun Obasanjo. When the Vice President granted what I consider a harmless interview to THISDAY newspapers, two issues stood out from it. One, that he was not happy with the anti-democratic tendencies within his ruling People’s Democratic Party and two, that the president swore to him that he would leave office in 2007. Consequent events following the publication of that interview like the president’s response on national television (accusing the VP of disloyalty at some point in the ‘political marriage’ of their presidency) as well as the VP’s subsequent remarks at public forums are scenery in the media and so do not require regurgitation.

At the early stages of the commentarial blitzkrieg of this unfolding political soap opera, this writer had sought to focus on the imperativeness of highlighting some of the issues raised by the VP on leadership, democracy and institutions. But the intellectually suave Dr. Chidi Amuta in his piece, “The President Right or Wrong” published in THISDAY newspapers made arguments pointing to the sacrilegiousity of the Vice President’s comments as an antithesis to the principles of the presidential system of government that we practice and as imported from the United States of America. He ended the article by calling on the VP to resign. Taking a cue from this intellectual opinion, every Okoro, Hassan and Wale with name recognition have used one press conference after another to rouse any rabble that comes their way along the lines of Dr. Amuta’s preachment of American-style presidentialism, being that he is a gifted thinker whose ideas are worth taking seriously for their own sake. But, perhaps more importantly, this thinking has become emblematic of a school of thought that is gaining momentum in the evolution of what we now know as the ‘Obasanjo-Atiku feud’. That is why this particular point of view especially as it relates to the presidential system of government requires further analysis and it is in this spirit that I offer a differing commentary.

I begin with some historicity. The Americans designed the presidential system of government in their constitution as drafted in 1787. In advocating this form of government, the framers of the constitution sought to avoid the perils of the British monarchy from which they had fought their independence in 1776. It was in that document that they also enshrined the office of the President in order to create a strong federal government without a monarchical-style president. In fact, people like the great Patrick Henry (of the “Give me liberty or give me death” fame) refused to participate in that Constitutional Convention for fear that it would sneak in another imperial ruler and he blurted out his fears with his now famous quip: “I smell a rat”. So conscious of this were the Americans that the second-placed candidate in the presidential electoral college ballot assumed the office of the Vice President in the early years of America’s political history following the adoption of the constitution. With the passage of time, they devised the idea of a joint ticket between a candidate and his running mate for the presidential elections. Without a doubt, given the depth of thought that was ascribed to America’s founding fathers, they would have easily provided for the president to appoint his deputy after winning the elections.

It is against this background that past American two-term presidents and their deputies have worked with mutual paranoia. As recently as the late 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower was known to be unfavourable to the ascension of his Vice President, Richard Nixon by even doubting Nixon’s capability to be president and to which Nixon responded by adopting a campaign style that contrasted with Eisenhower’s non-partisan aloofness. In non-election years, Nixon toured the country trying to bolster Republican Party finances and spirit. Eventually, as undisputed party leader at the end of Eisenhower’s second term, Nixon easily won the presidential nomination in 1960 after Eisenhower had, apparently with no options left for him, subsequently supported Nixon. This trend continued into the next two-term scenario of the Reagan years when Vice President George H. W. Bush (nominated to be VP by Ronald Reagan because of his showing at their presidential primaries) built his own presidential ambition in 1988 on providing a type of leadership that will make America, “a kinder, gentler nation” to which First Lady Nancy Reagan was reported to have privately retorted: “kinder than who?” Obviously, Bush was sending a signal that he would detour from the ‘cowboy policies’ of his boss. This particular instance reduces the essence of Dr. Amuta’s thesis that “under our American-style presidential system, a vice president has no business articulating viewpoints that could remotely be construed to run counter to those of his boss.” As was with Nixon, Bush’s base within the party driven by the master of hardball politics, Lee Atwater and the consummate James Baker ensured that he coasted to nomination, albeit with Reagan’s eventual support. The Clinton-Gore scenario is still fresh in our memory. Clinton first balked at supporting Gore, Gore became his own man by rallying the party faithful and mouthing messages of bringing back morality to the White House (themes that were anti-Clintonesque at the time), thereafter Clinton supported Gore to clinch the party’s nomination.

I have gone to this length to prove that there is nothing strange in the Made-in- America presidential system of government to have a two-term Vice President take a different stand from his boss, especially if he is not sure of the President’s support for his own presidential bid. It is politics. However, this does not lend credence to a feuding presidency, as it is detrimental to the existentialist practice of governance and impairs the tenets of loyalty. Through the years, American institutions have grown to weather the storm of these occasional nuisances in such a way that their democracy does not self-destruct. Also, their political parties are such that even though the president is the leader of the party and wields a commanding influence on it, the party mechanism for selecting its candidates for presidential elections are not subject to the whims of the president.

The Americans were able to achieve this because their commentarial intelligentsia generated helpful and non-destructive interpretations to these behaviours of their politicians and by so doing built strong defences for them within the confines of democratic principles and practice. The presidential system of government does not create the type of ‘strong’ president that is gaining currency in views expressed across the country. To toe this line of thought will be to adulterate this system of governance with the raw power of the typical African ‘Big Man’ and in doing so create what I will describe as imperial presidentialism, the dangers of which forms the basis of my upcoming essay. The militarism in our politics over the past two and a half decades have also formalised our acceptation of this Ogakpata-kpata mentality. Yes, presidentialism is designed to have an effective president but not an imperial one.

However, considering the fact that these trends are, for us, distractive and possibly self-executing, we could reflect on a few exit options. One way out would be to adopt the George W. model. The present US President, George W. Bush, has in Vice President Dick Cheney someone with no presidential ambition of his own whatsoever. That way both Bush and Cheney are not mired in the rofo-rofo and lucre of presidential succession politics, which is left to the Republican partisans. Another model, as I indicated earlier, will be to have the president appoint his Vice President after the presidential elections and inauguration (possibly with the confirmation of the Senate). A third option will be the South African model which maintains our status quo of a joint ticket but with a constitutional amendment that allows the president to sack the Vice President as President Thabo Mbeki has recently done to Jacob Zuma.

However, any political sculpt adopted in a democracy requires the statesmanship of the leader at the time to bear its best fruits and this should be the main thrust of the contributions from our thinkers and for this I will conclude by quoting copiously from a lecture delivered by former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso:

“For a leader to safeguard national interests and achieve national goals, there is an additional requirement. Updated knowledge, republican values, and a good deliberative process, important though they are, may not be enough to produce a successful statesman. The missing quality is what Isaiah Berlin identified as the capacity for good “political judgment.” This entails not only the discernment to avoid the opposite risks of impractical idealism and uninspiring realism, but also the practical wisdom to grasp the character of a particular situation or moment in history and to seize the opportunities or confront the challenges that it presents. It is the capacity to reach into the chaotic flow of experience and sift out what matters, to see what fits with what, what springs from what, and what leads to what. It is a sense for what is qualitative rather than quantitative, a proven capacity for synthesis rather than analysis.

Those who lack this gift, no matter how clever, learned, imaginative, and noble they may be, lack the sense of what will make a difference in history and what will not. One may add that while political judgment always matters, it matters even more so at times of transition. It is true that in democracies, all moments are in some way transitional, for democracies are constantly reinventing themselves. Yet no moment is perhaps so critical as that of democratic consolidation, when progressive trends struggle daily with regressive ones, and the outcome is by no means certain. A true statesman will know how to foster the former and inhibit the latter, or at least how to put any such backwardness as cannot be uprooted at the service of progress, for the benefit of institution- building. For it is only institutions, and not individuals, that can reliably sustain democracy over the long haul. Perhaps the best use that statesmen can make of political acumen in such moments is precisely that of making their nations less reliant on themselves and more dependent on institutions.” (Emphasis added)

These are the kind of words that should come from our own intellectuals and commentariat rather than crafting a manifesto that will enthrone an imperial president.